Monday, May 19, 2008

At the seminary, I remember most of my professors opposing the policy of first communion separated from catechesis and confirmation. For a long time, when I would hear of it, I opposed it also. This had less to do with traditionalism than the conviction that we should not give the Sacrament to those, "who do not know what they are receiving or why they are receiving it. " (Luther's Large Catechism) All the examples I saw of early communion confirmed that conviction. Most churches that practice early communion take the children through a short 3 or 4 week course on the specific topic of the Lord's Supper. But the question is, do the children understand what sin is so that they see their need for the Sacrament. Do they have a working definition of sin as defined by the Ten Commandments? Also, do they know who that God is whom they are to fear and love? It seemed to me that a conscientious partaking of the Lord's Supper required an informed knowledge of the faith in all its chief parts. I still believe that.

But recently, godly men and pastors whom I respect for their faithfulness to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions have taken a somewhat different approach than that which has been held historically by most American Lutheran Churches. Three churches that I am aware of have moved to an early communion practice for young children. Their arguments seem to me to be solid. The primary reason for their new practice is a desire to get the precious Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ to the children at the earliest possible age. I, also, share that desire.

One of their arguments is, first, most adult converts are not required to undergo all the memorization, so why should we insist that it be done by children. More to the point, why should children be denied the Sacrament until they have mastered the memorization work when adults are given a pass? Is this a double standard? Why should we deny communion to children who have not completely mastered the memorization of the Small Catechism and give it to adults who haven't even tried? What about children who are developmentally handicapped who may never be able to master the memory work? Also, as every pastor knows, there are many children who have been confirmed when they have not fully memorized the Small Catechism. We go ahead and confirm them anyway, because confirmation has become another rite of passage.

Rev. William Weedon makes the argument that our system of catechesis was not part of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy but a later development of Pietism, a movement that was more about personal devotion and introspection than objective faith in Christ. Are we going to say that Luther and the Reformers did not have a solid confirmation practice. Luther saw the parents as the primary catechists. Many old Lutherans learned the catechism from their parents then were brought to the pastor for examination. In this way they were admitted to the Sacrament.

Rev. Richard Stuckwisch makes the argument that catechesis is never really complete. It is a process that begins with baptism and ends with our ascent to glory. He also makes the point that many congregations require memorization of the six chief parts as a sort of hoop that children jump through to show their worthiness to receive the Lord's Supper. In fact, as our catechism states, "That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, 'given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'"

The new synodical hymnal makes a provision for first communion providing a rite for it. This shows that our synod is already taking steps to make this possible for congregations. In fact, congregations who wish to do it can.

As the people at Gethsemane know, we have been moving confirmation to younger ages for some time now. I still believe that a thorough catechesis for the young has value in that it prepares children to withstand the onslaught that Satan will throw at them. On the other hand, I wish for children to receive communion as early as they desire it and can receive it responsibly. The Lord's Supper itself is a faith building means of grace that strengthens and confirms us in the faith. Children coming to communion must have a handle on the six chief parts of the catechism. Luther said every Christian should know the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. Without these how can we examine ourselves, believe in the One true God who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us, and how can we call upon Him.

Maybe the answer is to take the children through an introduction to the Small Catechism of about ten to twelve weeks, making sure they know the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. They should know something about what God has done for them in Baptism. They should know something about confession and absolution and be able to examine themselves. They should know all about the Lord's Supper, or at least the catechism material. This is, after all, what we require of adults. Later, when they are able, we can take them through again at a deeper level. But, rather than calling it first commuion, my gut feeling is, if we do this, to just go ahead and call it what it is, confirmation.

This blog, of course, is on the world wide web. I welcome all comments, but I am especially interested in the comments of my own congregation. My plan is to present some material to the congregation for them to read and consider and then to present this to the Voters' Assembly meeting in July. I look forward to having a conversation about this.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Missions Gone Wild

Thanks to 'the Old Parson' for posting this blog. It's bad enough when members of the synod try to accommodate the Divine Service to reformed sensibilities, but to have the chair of the missions department at one of the Concordia's suggest that we should accommodate it to Muslim sensibilities is unthinkable.

The professor in question is Herb Hoefer, chair of Missions at Concordia, Portland. He begins with apparent giddiness that a group of Muslim academics visiting the chapel service approved of the fact that the hymns, assuming they sang hymns, did not mention the name of Jesus, saying, "They discussed that they could have worshipped with the same words that they heard, for it so happened that the songs they heard only referred to God and not to Jesus." What a shame that a chair of missions welcomes their approval. Sadly, it doesn't end there; he goes on to wonder what else could be changed for the sake of mission in the "the Muslim context."

Perhaps, making Jesus the, "object of our worship," is a mistake. He says, "We have strong biblical authority for using the most common term 'Lord' when addressing the Resurrected One. That term would not feed Muslim misconceptions, as the term :Jesus' does." Well, there goes the ancient Church's earliest confession that, "Jesus is Lord."

He proposes changing the wording of the creeds to avoid Muslim misconceptions about Christians worshiping more than one God. He proposes that the third article of the Creeds be changed to avoid the offensive words, "Christian," or, "catholic." Instead he advocates using the word "umma," a Muslim term that suggests a fellowship of believers.

He also asserts that we remove the epistles from the Divine Service, or any worship service, since the epistles are largely Pauline and Muslims think that Paul was a false teacher who altered the Christian message from its previous pristine purity. This was a purity that conformed to the teaching of Muhammad. Of course, if you take out the Pauline epistles you don't hear unhelpful things like, "I am not ashamed of the gospel," and, "The Word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness."

The gist of the Professor's proposals is that we should alter Christianity itself, at least in the Muslim mission context, and seems to want to allow the Muslims to interpret our faith according to their own. Take out anything that is offensive in the Christian faith and what do you have...nothing, or maybe in that context, Islam.

Here are some other gems from the professor:
"Whenever we use the term 'Son of God,' Muslims immediately think blasphemy. We need to explain to Muslims that the term is a biblical metaphor that is used of individuals and even of Israel. It is not a biological description but a theological affirmation using a human metaphor. The Second Person of the Trinity is a 'chip off the old block.'"

"We need to make that explanation, but public worship typically is not the proper venue for that discussion. It would be best simply to avoid the term (Son of God) in our preaching and guide our people also to avoid it in their witnessing."

"In all of these matters, the process of discussing the reasons for the changes would become a great opportunity for educating and training our Christians as well as they try to witness effectively to their Muslim neighbors."

Of course, orthodox Christians would say that were we to adopt these proposals we would not be witnessing at all but compromising the truth of the gospel. The Apostles words are appropriate here, "even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we have preached to you, let him be accursed."

In an earlier blog, I took Tiny Muskins, a Danish Roman bishop, to task for suggesting that Christians adopt the name "Allah" as a title for God in order to accommodate Muslim sensitivities. These suggestions by one of our own are just as bad.

Rather than altering the historical Christian witness and removing traditional language from the Divine Service in order to be "effective," perhaps Concordia should alter the status of the professor and remove him from his position at one of our colleges.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sacramental Docetism

Docetism is a term that comes to us from the Greek word "doketo." Doketo means "to think" or "to seem." An early heretical group, the gnostics, claimed that Christ did not truly appear in the flesh, but merely "seemed" to possess a body. Thus, the gnostics taught docetism. This was a denial of the true flesh of Christ and a heretical challenge to the fundamental doctrines of the incarnation and the substitutionary atonement. If Christ merely appeared to be human or have a body, He did not pay for the sins of the world on the cross. In fact, He did not become human and has in no way shared in our humanity. The apostle John addresses this error in his first epistle to the church, saying, "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." 1 John 4:2

But the reformed denial of the true, bodily presence of Christ in the supper is a sort of sacramental docetism. That is, they deny the very words of Christ in the institution of the Supper as being in any sense real. Classically, the reformed have done this on the same basis as the underlying philosophical position of the gnostics. That is, they deny any real connection between the human and divine natures of Christ. The communication between the divine and human natures has always been a problem for the reformed. That denial has real consequences in their view of the nature of the Lord's Supper. They deny that Christ's body is actually or really present, distributed and received in the Sacrament at the Altar. They are in effect Sacramental Docetists.

Lutherans boldly confess the true, bodily presence of Christ in the Holy Supper. We confess it in word and deed. How can we confess the true, bodily presence of Christ by our deeds? Christians have historically done this by reverencing the elements at the consecration. First, it should be clear which elements we reverence. We do not, as some say, reverence the bread and wine. That would be idolatry. We reverence the heavenly elements of Christ's true, physical body and blood which are, "in, with, and under," the earthly elements. We do so by bowing deeply or genuflecting at the consecration and elevation. With these bodily actions we are making a bold confession of the true, bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Christ has come physically and really into our presence in the consecration. How can we do other than humbly and reverently acknowledge that presence?

This may seem foreign at first, maybe a "little catholic." Of course, it is. It's what catholics, Lutheran, Roman, and Greek, have done for centuries. It is also a confession against the Sacramental Docetism of American Evangelicalism.